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Carter Bays on How the End of ‘How I Met Your Mother’ Led to Debut Novel ‘The Mutual Friend’


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When the final season of CBS’ How I Met Your Mother concluded in 2014, co-creator Carter Bays wasn’t sure what was in store next. But his answer came when dusting off a book and finding inspiration in the varied worlds of literary fiction.

“After working on How I Met Your Mother for 10 years and sort of being in output mode for that whole time, I wanted to put myself in input mode. I had a whole shelf full of books that I’ve been meaning to read for years and never got around to, a lot of classics,” he tells The Hollywood Reporter.

He recalls first reading Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina when he was first developing How I Met Your Mother, but then once “things got crazy” with the show, he never finished, only to leave his TBR pile. “Nine years later, the bookmark was still there. So that was actually the thing that kind of kicked it off,” Bays says.

With the creative juices now flowing, Bays aspired to tell a story based on an idea he had been “kicking around for awhile.” In The Mutual Friend, out June 7 from Dutton Books, Bays tells the story of Alice Quick, a 20-something New Yorker attempting to chase her dream of becoming a doctor and signing up for the MCAT. However, things prove to be more difficult in the age of distraction with social media and smartphones. Bays’ novel examines Alice and an ensemble of characters over the course of one summer as they navigate love, loss, ambition and faith.

Making the transition from writing for television to a novel was initially difficult, Bays admits. “I had developed this craft of writing television over 20 years, and I knew how to open a final draft file and start a script, but fiction was something brand new.” But after getting over that hump of feeling lost, Bays found a new creative fulfillment and had free reign on storytelling: “For the first few years where it was just me and this book, I enjoyed being able to just create without a studio and network looking over my shoulder, or a fan base. It was nice being just me and the story, and I could tell it any way I wanted.”

Ahead of the novel’s release, Bays spoke to THR about making the writing transition from small screen to page, his Tarantino-esqe book dream and what it was like to rewatch How I Met Your Mother for the first time.

For starters, let’s talk about how this book came to be. Was there always an interest in writing a book, and what was the timeline of when you first had the idea to officially begin the process?

It’s an idea I’ve been kicking around for a while. It was wrapped in this character of Alice and the story of her trying to study for a test over the course of the summer. And also there were a lot of things that I wanted to explore, like questions I wanted to ask about technology and how it affects our relationships and the way we communicate with each other. That kind of stuff was bubbling up for a while after How I Met Your Mother ended around 2014-2015. At one point, the thought was to try and envision it as a series but, after How I Met Your Mother, I really kind of retrieved into reading a lot. I read a lot of books and sort of rediscovered my love of fiction. In exploring all the ways that I could tell this story, it suddenly occurred to me that fiction made the most sense and would be the best way to get these ideas across. So [I] held my breath and took a leap, and started writing it as a book. It turned out to be a wonderful process that I really loved. I can’t wait to write the next one.

Were they any books that you looked to for inspiration when sorting out how you wanted to tell this story?

There’s certainly a lot of books that were inspiring. I wanted to cover my bases on all the [classics] that I should have read by now. I kind of rediscovered Jane Austen, especially Sense and Sensibility, which made a big impression on how I formulated this book. I read some [Leo] Tolstoy too. I got really into, War and Peace and Anna Karenina. Anna Karenina actually, [when] I had started reading it, I had gotten about 100 pages into it right around the beginning of when we were first developing How I Met Your Mother — one of the characters on How I Met Your Mother is named after a character from that book — and then things got crazy on How I Met Your Mother and I put the bookmark in the book and put it on the shelf. Nine years later, the bookmark was still there. So that was actually the thing that kind of kicked it off. I was like, “I have nothing to do with myself now. I should really like, go back and finish this book.” And I finished it and it blew my mind. It’s one of the greatest novels ever written for a reason. It was exciting to see such a well-told story and got the juices flowing for me.

Readers are introduced to a variety of characters throughout your novel. Can you talk about creating these characters and what you hoped to explore with them?

My method in creating these characters was [to] find the connected tissue between myself and that person, and try to fan that flame. So each character initially was like some side of myself amplified. Like Alice, who’s trying to study for this test and keeps getting distracted, was the writer with writer’s block side of me, [who] sat down facing a blank page and really struggled with focusing. Alice’s brother Bill, who is a former tech developer who ends up getting obsessed with Buddhism, was based on my life after How I Met Your Mother, when I sort of had spent 10 years being obsessed with doing this one thing and then casting about for what’s my next thing gonna be. I actually took a class on Buddhism at Columbia, like what Bill did. Bill is me, but the part [that was different was] where I was able to hit the brakes because I like my life and I love my wife and kids. Bill wasn’t able to hit the brakes and just went off the rails with this intense religious experience. So all the characters were kind of me, was how I approached it.

What was it like to now put your writing craft into book form and paint a picture of a story in a different way for an audience? 

Initially, [it was] a difficult transition just getting over the hump of just feeling like I didn’t know how to do this. I had developed this craft of writing television over 20 years, and I knew how to open a final draft file and start a script, but fiction was something brand new. I think reading a lot was what got me over that hump and really familiarized myself with fiction. I loved the experience, though they’re very different experiences. I love writing television. I love the camaraderie of writing with a team of writers that’s just a lot fun. That’s something that you definitely miss when you’re alone in your room [and] it’s just you and your manuscript, and no one’s knocking on the door. It was nice being just me and the story and I could tell it any way I wanted.

One of the hard things about writing television is that so much of the writing you do ends up not getting produced. I’ve written a number of pilots that I love, and some of them, I even shot the pilot, but then it doesn’t go forward because most pilots don’t and you have to fall in love with these characters and then let them go after you’ve only written the first chapter of their story. I like the idea that I could tell Alice’s story and nothing could stop me. I didn’t need to convince a studio to give me millions of dollars to tell her story. I could just write it in a Microsoft Word file and if no publisher wanted to publish it, I could take it down to Kinko’s and print it out myself, put it on the bookshelf and my kids could read it someday. There’s something I loved about the book itself being the finished product.

With a show, especially ones with multiple seasons like How I Met Your Mother, you’re able to explore and build on in-depth storylines and different characters. But with a book, you have a specific timeframe to offer a beginning, middle and end. Was it liberating to have this specific timeframe for your characters and story?

That’s the difference between episodic TV and movies: Every story you have to leave open-ended for the next episode. This is my first experience in this sort of closed-loop, telling a full story and ending it. And we’re never going to see these characters again. I liked that. It was a nice change.

In what ways do you think your writing process and your approach to writing have changed after working on this book?

I had to untrain the part of myself that thought in terms of budget when I wrote. Often when you write television and when you’re a writer-producer for television, essentially you can’t set a three-sentence scene on the moon because someone’s going to spend the weekend building the moon for you. That was the fun thing about writing the book. I think there are a lot of things in this book that actually beyond just me haking off the shackles, are actual reactions to that. There’s a scene that takes place on a beach in Hawaii for half a page and I love being able to do that. I think I did that probably because I realized that I don’t have to call [How I Met Your Mother producer and production manager] Suzy Greenberg and explain to her that we need to go shoot at the beach for half a page. (Laughs.) It was invigorating!

This story showcases the impact of social media and technology. Given our social media age, what’s it like to release a story about it, especially after a pandemic where we relied on technology as a way to feel connected?

It’s funny, I started developing the story in 2015 and the writing happened later, but I sort of locked 2015 in my head as when the story takes place. And part of it was for a practical reason because there’s a year and a half lag between when you finish a book and when it ends up in the bookstore. I didn’t want it to be one of those books that take place right now and the character opens up their Myspace page, but you’re immediately behind the times. I just tried to say like, “Alright, it’s 2015, if things change wildly between now and then, then that’s fine.” As it happened, things did change wildly and went even more crazy. I’m really glad that I made that choice because I’m so glad that I don’t have to mention Donald Trump at any point in the book (Laughs.) If it was 2016, I’d probably have to say something about him and the pandemic has definitely, I think, seriously exacerbated a lot of the stuff that I talk about in the book. I feel like in only good ways in terms of what the book is ultimately trying to say.

In what ways do you think releasing the book during this time could impact readers’ reactions? 

It’s interesting cause I feel like having been born in 1975, I’m from this very specific generation that has lived on both sides of the fence. It’s almost like as a writer you have to look at the world around you and say, “I’m placed at this time and this place, what can I report on that no one else anywhere else in the history of human endeavor can report on?” Like, for me, I think this. It’s the fact that for the first 25 years of my life, I didn’t have a cell phone and I didn’t have social media and how that has changed, I think for a while there, you felt like you were living through this revolution. You felt like you were living through like this huge change. I think especially in the last seven years, since 2015, we’ve really reached the point where the revolution’s over. We’re now swimming in this water and we don’t think about the fact that it is water. We don’t even know what water is. This is just the human condition now [and] this is how we live. That was ultimately kind of what I wanted to explore in the book. It’s funny, I see my kids just absolutely not struggling at all with this idea of like, do we live in two worlds? Is that weird? Is that wrong? They just go on Roblox and play and have a great time and then they play in the real world. I wanted to explore that. I wanted to explore how much our attitudes have changed towards technology just in the past 20 years.

What do you hope that people take away from this story and did you take away anything from working on this story and these characters?

For me, ultimately, this is a story about the emotional throughline of characters learning to reconnect with the person that they were, with what they perceive as the better version of themselves and pulling themselves out of a rut and changing their lives for the better. That was something that I think I was writing about that I felt very emotionally at the time. How I Met Your Mother just ended after nine seasons and I felt like I was kind of lost and kicking around and not sure what to do with myself. You go through an experience like that and you look back fondly and you sort of miss it. And so, for me, it’s this story of a character Alice missing who she used to be, and it’s her coming to terms with [the fact that] she won’t be that person again ever, but that there is some future that she’s moving forward towards and her seizing that with both hands. That was the big takeaway just emotionally.

Do you have plans to write and release more books? If so, what kind of stories do you envision telling?

Oh, I would love to write [another book.] I’ve been saying to my wife, I want to do the Quentin Tarantino thing and write 10 books. I have loved this experience so much. I can’t wait to write the next one! All my pencils are sharpened. I’m ready and need an idea and I don’t have one. There’s a lot of different genres that I love. I would love to write a horror novel. I’d love to write a mystery. I’d love to write a Sherlock Holmes-type thing. I’m such a fan of so many different worlds within this greater world. I definitely want to do it again as soon as I can.

Do you envision this story being adapted? Is that something you would be interested in or do you prefer to keep it as its own separate entity?

I don’t wanna speak to that too specifically, but I will say that I am loving it just existing as a book right now. That’s another thing that’s different about TV and books is — I can’t remember who I’m misquoting here — just the way that a book is a shared experience between a writer and a reader. The reader does half the work for the writer as they create a face in their mind of who the main character is. I sort of love that without there being a TV adaptation. That’s the thing I love about reading and so I’d love to preserve that for a little while. That being said, I do love television and I love the experience of making TV. So if that is in the future of this thing, that would be wonderful as well.

You documented your rewatch of How I Met Your Mother series on Twitter last year. What was it like doing that and did you take away anything differently from watching it while no longer being in that bubble of working on the show?

I don’t want this to come across the wrong way, but watching it with this much distance and having forgotten so much of it I can’t believe how good it is (Laughs.) Watching it, I feel like that’s not even me that worked on it. That’s me 10 years ago, so I don’t even know who that person is. But my hat is off to that person and that old crew of writers and actors and directors. I couldn’t believe how much I was laughing and enjoying the story and, really, I strongly recommend this show. It was such a lovely experience because it was like a show that was made just for me … It was nice having forgotten all of the jokes so I could just laugh again.

Was that your first time rewatching the series?

It was! There was a long stretch there when I hadn’t even laid eyes on it and I didn’t even finish it. I only got seven seasons through. I gotta get to the very end.

Nothing seems to ever truly end in television as there can be reboots and spinoffs. What has it been like seeing How I Met Your Mother be reimagined and this new generation so to speak continue this world you first started with How I  Met Your Father?

Everything about it has been delightful. It was delightful working on it and working with Isaac [Aptaker] and Elizabeth [Berger] to develop this new story. It’s also been wonderful stepping back from it and just letting them do it and being able to enjoy it just as a fan. I think it’s such a phenomenal thing that they’ve recreated this world but also created their own new world with these lovely characters. I think Hilary [Duff] is such a fantastic center of a show. All of the actors are so tremendous. I’ve just been enjoying it as a fan.

Interview edited for length and clarity. 

The Mutual Friend releases on June 7.

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